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Lab says it's ready in case of fires

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By The Staff

As Northern New Mexico communities experience the impacts from Arizona and New Mexico fires blowing smoke into the region, they can take some comfort in actions taken at Los Alamos to prevent and fight fires.

For the past three years, the Los Alamos Site Office and Los Alamos National Security have worked closely to establish a wildland fire management program to improve readiness and reduce risk exposure at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Governor Susana Martinez, meanwhile, announced Tuesday night that Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Cabinet Secretary Michael Duvall has ordered the State Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to activate to a Level 3 operations status due to the effects of ongoing wildfires across New Mexico’s western border in Arizona.

Activation to this level means additional Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management staff will operate the EOC and coordinate any local requests for assistance should the fire spread into the state. 

Additionally, crews from Albuquerque, Rio Rancho, Farmington, Bernalillo County, Mora County, and San Juan County have been deployed to Arizona to assist with fire fighting efforts. Wildland Fire Strike Teams from Montana and Idaho are also assisting local, state, and federal crews in strategic areas in New Mexico under the direction of the State Forestry Division. 

“We are working hard to ensure the safety of all New Mexicans as the wildfire approaches our western border,” Martinez said. “It is important for our residents to heed the warnings of local and state officials as we handle the issue of persistent smoke in the air and prepare for the possibility of the fire moving into New Mexico. As we coordinate our preparedness and response within this administration, we remain in constant contact with state officials in Arizona and local officials in New Mexico - with the ultimate goal being to protect property, minimize damages, and keep our citizens safe.” 

At Tuesday’s meeting, the county council issued a proclamation declaring extreme fire conditions in Los Alamos and imposing restrictions on fireworks.

Fire Chief Michael Thompson thanked the council, saying, “The last time we did this was 2008. We don’t take this lightly. We’ve had eight fires so far this year, but thanks to early detection by citizens and a good crew, they were put out very quickly. If we can keep doing that, we can get through this

At the DOE facilities in Los Alamos, establishing a fire-fighting center, conducting frequent emergency exercises, using fire-prediction technologies, and thinning dry foliage are among the activities undertaken locally to address the threat of fire.
Additionally, teamwork with state, local, and federal agencies enhances fire prevention and fire-fighting efforts. Further, area agencies conduct biweekly Interagency Wildland Fire Team meetings.
A fire center at the lab’s Technical Area 49 - established and operated by the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service supports fire-fighting crews and equipment. The center houses a seasonal helicopter, used in March to survey a wildland fire west of the Laboratory. Dry conditions and wind gusts up to 60 miles per hour threatened to turn the blaze into a much bigger problem than the 95-acre burn area that resulted.

“I am very impressed by how well all of the first responders and agencies work together,” Smith said. “With the kinds of conditions we get here this time of year, it is essential that we have a competent and responsive team to tackle wild fires.”

To allow for both ground and air firefighting resources to attack fires on lab property, LASO joined federal and state parties in an agreement in 2008 titled “New Mexico Wildland Fire Management Joint Powers Master Agreement.” The agreement also allows for LASO and the lab to support neighboring agencies with emergency equipment and personnel.

Additionally, “table top” exercises over the past two years have allowed the organizations to simulate fires and response activities.

 For example, the lab uses a sand table to stage a wildland fire, predict its behavior using fire progress prediction technology, and determine how best to respond.

Wildland fires scenarios are also among the emergencies that large full-scale exercise activities at the lab’s Emergency Operations Center, focus on. Trained and designated personnel manage response to simulated or real emergencies at the EOC.
 “Los Alamos is doing its part to protect Northern New Mexico from wild fires,” Smith said.
 Further, LANL has purchased equipment and supplies necessary for fire fighting to establish its own “fire cache,” and has provided specialized training to its emergency managers.
 Apart from responses to fires, many of the lab’s efforts are preventative measures. To reduce risk exposure, LANL has thinned hundreds of acres of forests and regularly mows grassy areas.  LANL also uses field visits, flyovers, and aerial imagery to target areas that would further fuel an advancing wildfire.
 “Los Alamos is doing its part to protect Northern New Mexico from wild fires,” Smith said.
 Improved fire road access over the many acres of backcountry terrain at the Laboratory adds to improved fire fighting capabilities.

 The lab has graded roads, developed or improved maps, posted signs and installed five hardened bridges to allow access to difficult-to-reach areas. LANL also re-established miles of fire breaks across the Laboratory in order to halt or slow advancing wildfires.